Meddah CoffeehouseYapı Kredi Publications
A Cup of Coffee - A Special Memory of 40 Years

Smugglers, New Production and Arrival in the West

Following the Ottoman Turks’ occupation of Yemen in 1536, coffee became an important import good for the Turkish Empire. The beans were normally exported from the Yemen port of Moha. For this reason, the coffee coming from that region acquired the port’s name. The trade route carried the coffee by ship to Suez; it was then loaded onto camels and carried to the depots of French and Venetian traders in Alexandria. Because the coffee trade was the main means of securing a profit, the Turks created a monopoly by jealously cultivating their trees in Yemen. In order to prevent the coffee beans from sprouting, they allowed none to be taken out of Yemen before being either soaked in water or partly roasted.

 These preventive measures inevitably failed. Sometime in the 1600s, a Muslim pilgrim named Baba Budan departed with 7 coffee beans fixed to his waist and succeeded in cultivating them in the Mysore Mountains of southern India. In 1616, a Dutchman who dominated world sea trade from Aden to Yemen obtained a plant. In 1658, from the beans of that plant, the Dutch began to cultivate coffee successfully in Ceylon. Another Dutchman brought trees from Malabar to Java in 1699. After that the trees started to be planted in the Sumatra, Selebes, Timor, Bali and East India islands. From that time on, the Dutch were to set the world market price for coffee from the East Indies.

Although today very little high quality coffee is coming from Java, and Moha lost its importance as a port in 1869, the coffees of Java and Moha are the most well known and sought after and these names are still synonyms for various coffee varieties.

At first the Europeans did not know what to do with this strange new drink. English poet Sir George Sandys remarked about Turks and their coffee that “they chat for the better part of the day” and described coffee as “black like soot and not tasting much different.” He added that “they claim it helps the nerves and makes you lively.”

Eventually the Europeans adopted coffee with a passion. In 1605, a dying Pope Clement VIII, in response to the priests’ demands that this drink be banned, decided to taste the Muslims’ drink. “Why is it this devil’s drink is so tasty?” he said, and voiced his quandary by saying, “it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it. We shall fool Satan by baptizing it.”During the first half of the 17th Century coffee was still a rather exotic drink and, like other little-seen substances such as sugar, cocoa and tea, it was used as an expensive medicine by the upper class. However over the next 50 years, Europeans discovered both the social and medical advantages to be derived from this Arab drink. On Italian streets in the 1650s, lemonade sellers sold coffee, chocolate and liquors. Venice’s first cafe opened in 1683. This “caffe” (in other European cities written as “cafe) that took the name of the drink served there also soon came to be associated with entertaining friendships, pleasant conversations and tasty dishes.

Surprisingly, the French were tailing behind the Italians and the English because of rising zeal among the opponents of coffee, and did not open their cafes until, in 1669, Süleyman Ağa, the Turkish Ambassador who, because of his crazed passion for everything Turkish, served coffee at his pompous Parisian parties. The male guests in their grand clothes learned to drink this exotic drink while seated on plush Turkish cushions. Coffee was still viewed as only a novelty.

French doctors, wary of claims regarding the medical aspects of coffee, took a militant position against it in Marseilles in 1679: “We say in horror that this drink … completely negates people’s enjoyment of wine.” Later one young doctor, claiming scientific evidence, charged that that coffee caused drying of the spinal fluid and the spinal cord and resulted in general tiredness, apoplexy and weakness.” However, six years later another French doctor, Sylvestre Dufour, wrote a book fiercely defending coffee, and a Paris doctor in 1696 wrote a prescription for a coffee enema to “soften” the intestines and restore the skin.

The fame of French cafés did not take root until 1689 when Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, an Italian immigrant, opened the Café de Procope directly across from the Comedie Française. Soon French actors, writers, performers and musicians were gathering there to drink coffee and discuss literary subjects. Over the course of the century that followed, this café attracted such notables as Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot and Benjamin Franklin. In the same period, fortune tellers secured a source of income for themselves by claiming to read the coffee grounds. A long line was pointing ahead to a long journey. A circle meant birth. A cross meant sudden death.

French historian Michelet described the emergence of coffee “a major event” a revolution of felicity, that “even changed people’s character.” While the cafes were creating intellectual environments that later led to the French Revolution, they also no doubt reduced their consumption of alcohol. Food writer Margaret Visser noted that European cafes were places where men and women could meet on an equal basis and form friendships. They were meeting and talking in public places as never before possible.

As coffee consumption increased, the way it was made bore no resemblance to strong Turkish coffee. In 1710, instead of bringing the coffee up to the boiling point, the French used the infusion method for the first time, pouring boiling water onto the ground coffee through a filter placed over a pot. Soon they also discovered the pleasures of sweetened café au lait or milk with coffee. Marquise de Sevigne called this type of coffee “the loveliest thing in the world” and many French people began drinking café au lait, particularly at breakfast.

French writer Honore de Balzac, however, did not drink coffee with milk like this. Using coffee that had been well-ground to a fine powder and using practically no water, he drank it down on an empty stomach: “Straightway there is a general commotion. Ideas begin to move like the battalions of the Grand Army on the battlefield, and then the battle takes place. Memories arrive at full gallop, ensuing to the wind. The light cavalry of comparisons deliver a magnificent deploying charge…” Finally the creative powers emerged and Balzac was able to write: “Forms, shapes and characters appear; the paper is covered with ink; the night’s work begins; the struggle commences in a cloud of black powder and is concluded with torrents of black water.”

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